Monday, April 28, 2008

When is a Hearing Not Really a Hearing?

Answer: Usually, in a family law case, when you go to court in Tarrant County, Texas.

When attorneys set a case for court so they can get something in front of a judge, they most often talk about having a "hearing". In reality, there usually isn't a hearing. There will almost always be negotiations and conferences.
  • Meetings may occur in the courtroom, although the attorneys and parties generally must be pretty quiet.
  • The Tarrant County family law courts have many conference rooms around them, some right outside the courtroom doors and some at various places down the hall.
  • The hallways themselves are usually full of negotiators.
  • Vacant courtrooms sometimes get taken over.
  • The attorneys may go to the Lawyers' Lounge and discuss the pros and cons in considerable detail.
  • They may also meet in a room or hallway behind the courtroom, where the public isn't allowed.

The point of mentioning all that is that the courthouse is set up to facilitate negotiations. The reason? That's how most issues and cases are resolved. Very few true hearings are held and very few trials occur. With tens of thousands of cases already on file and thousands more filed each year, there is simply not enough time, courtroom space, judges and other personnel, to be able to provide a timely trial for everyone.

In reality, most people don't want to have a real hearing and have to testify. They don't want to be cross-examined and don't want their personal lives on display. They also don't want to give up their power of decision-making which they exercise in negotiations. It's a little scary thinking about turning over important decisions to a judge who doesn't really know you and your situation. A hearing be inevitable if the other sides insists on it, but most (although not all) judges really have to juggle their schedules to work in a hearing.

There are usually 10-20 cases set on an Associate Judge's docket each day. Some will be postponed and most will negotiate until settlement. A few will try for a hearing. In many of those cases, the judge will meet with the attorneys and can often help get the case settled by giving an advisory opinion (which could change if the judge actually heard all the evidence in the case) about how the judge views the case or how the judge might rule on certain matters (for example, who pays what bills, who stays in the house, whether spousal support would be ordered, etc.). Sometimes, the judge will have a bench conference with the parties and attorneys present. There are varying degrees of formality, depending on the judge, but it's generally a streamlined process.

For those who insist on a hearing, there is often a substantial wait. During that delay, there are usually negotiations going on. Keep in mind the big picture. Having a trial or a hearing should not be your high priority. That is a means to an end, not the end itself. Undoubtedly, you will have some concrete objectives in mind for yourself. Think long term, how would you like to end up? If you keep your goals and needs in mind, it will make it easier for you utilize the opportunities for settlement when you go to the courthouse in Tarrant County, Texas (or probably anywhere else). Just don't be surprised or disappointed if you go to the courthouse and there's no hearing.

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